Research School Network: Making use of maths manipulatives


Making use of maths manipulatives

by Research Schools Network
on the

https://www.semanticscholar.or…Sandra Bottomley (EYFS Leader at Clemets Primary School in Haverhill) and Anna Tapper (Primary mathematics evidence lead at Unity Research School) describe the importance of intentionality when using manipulatives in early years and key stage 1 maths provision.

Reception classrooms are such rich environments for manipulatives that Recommendation 3Use manipulatives and representations to develop understanding’ – from the Improving Mathematics in Early Years and Key Stage 1guidance report may seem like an obvious one.

But if we look a little closer, it is not just using manipulatives and representations that is important: it is about how they are used to ensure that children understand the links between them and the mathematical ideas they represent.

The careful use of manipulatives

Indeed, when considering how manipulatives should be used in the teaching of maths, Deborah Bull states: My main concern about the enormous faith in the power of manipulatives, in their almost magical ability to enlighten, is that we will be misled into thinking that mathematical knowledge will automatically arise from their use’.

EYFS leader, Sandra Bottomley, and her team at Clements Primary School in Haverhill, have embraced the effective and thoughtful use of manipulatives to develop children’s understanding of mathematical ideas.

The team carefully utilise the intrinsic links between physical play and children’s cognitive development at every opportunity. As the same neural circuitry is used to support children’s proprioceptive development as is used to process numbers and think abstractly, it makes sense to apply this to children’s natural desire to be physical and to play.

Building with construction toys, treasure hunts and maps, jigsaw play and pouring water into different shaped and orientated containers, are all activities that help children to develop spatial awareness. So, while their mathematical value may not be immediately obvious, such activities underpin later development. 

The team also recognise the importance of using concrete manipulatives so that children can handle and control their use, but also to give them a range of different manipulatives enabling them to build rich ideas. For example, a Numicon shape represents numbers as odd or even, connecting cubes represent numbers as length and cups and plates can represent cardinality or one-to-one correspondence.

Manipulatives in action

Staff use In the Moment Planning’ as their primary teaching tool, making it vitally important to have good quality interactions between children and adults. Practitioners place great value on being able to recognise the mathematics in play and in the power of sustained shared thinking to develop and extend children’s mathematical ideas during their self-initiated play activities.

During one activity, while children were digging in the mud on a worm hunt’, the adult:

  • wondered how many worms they might find
  • compared length and thickness of worms
  • encouraged the children to subitise one, two and three worms, and to say one more”
  • modelled the language of more”, fewer”, altogether” and comparative language…

…all while digging alongside the children! 

In this case, the worms were the manipulative, but this activity can be replicated in many different and varied scenarios. Ladybirds are another favourite, or pebbles in the sand pit, daisies in the grass, whatever your children are interested in. The children can gain so much more from the activities they have instigated when the adult becomes part of the play.

Children at Clements are encouraged to use manipulatives as part of their daily routines. For example: adding their mini-me’ to a tens frame when they come into class; using a Duplo block to vote for the daily story; or removing a piece of plastic fruit from the bowl when they have their snack. These very visual, concrete manipulatives, together with a skilled adult’s interactions, provide the children with many rich opportunities to develop their number sense throughout the day.

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